Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Accent Marks: Writing and Pronouncing Jewish America
PRONOUNCING AMERICA, WRITING JEWISH: ABRAHAM CAHAN,
DELMORE SCHWARTZ, GRACE PALEY, BERNARD MALAMUD

Far beyond the lights of Jersey,
Jerusalem still beckons us, in tongues.

—Linda Pastan, “Passover” (1971)

Contrary to some stereotypical misunderstanding, there is no
New Jersey accent.

—Philip Roth “Interview” (2002)

FOR DECADES, a New York–based radio station whose multilingual broadcasts served the needs of immigrant communities would identify itself in the following words: “This is WEVD, the station that speaks your language.” For most of the Jewish listeners, this meant Yiddish. During the first half of the twentieth century, Yiddish fueled the immigrant and second generation community, with daily newspapers, theaters, novels, poetry, folksongs, and radio programs such as those on WEVD. All of this has been well documented, and all of this is history. In recent years, New York City subways have displayed bold posters of the American flag in the shape of an Aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), sporting a banner with the words “Read Hebrew America.” By dialing a simple toll-free number, 1-800-444-HEBRE(W), anyone can acquire information at any time about free classes in “the language of our people” (see Figure 1). But what does “speaking your language” mean in these two advertisements, or in American Jewish culture more generally over the past century? In one case, Yiddish is a sign of the Old World, of an immigrant community tuning in to WEVD as a form of nostalgia. In the other, Hebrew is a sign of an even older identity, not of family history but of ancient history, not of relatives but of ancestors. One is listening, the other is reading; one is remembering, the other is re-enacting; one is “Yiddishkeit,” the other is Judaism. WEVD caters to an audience for whom Yiddish is palpably present; “Read Hebrew” addresses a public for whom Hebrew is conspicuously absent. One community's linguistic home is still Yiddish, the other's home is English, and only a moral or ideological imperative—“Read Hebrew America”—proposes to alter that.

Nowadays, the primary language of American Jewry is neither Yiddish nor Hebrew.1 Despite impressive bodies of literature in both of these languages produced in the United States, the language of American Jewry has become

-1-

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